Founders: Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman
Best known for: Signing Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Mudhoney; coining wacky marketing slogans, including "Going out of business since 1988" and "Celebrating making records for several years!"
Recent releases: Sebadoh, The Sebadoh; St. Etienne, Good Humor; Murder City Devils, Empty Bottles Broken Hearts
Future releases: Full-lengths from the Belle and Sebastian side project Looper and Seattle's Damien Jurado
As the godfather of Seattle music labels, Sub Pop's history is so entrenched in local folklore that it's probably taught in kindergarten classes by now. Just in case you skipped a grade, here's a refresher: After its inception in 1988, the label released seminal efforts from Mudhoney, Nirvana, and Soundgarden, spawning the "grunge" phenomenon. Founders Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt later sold 49 percent of Sub Pop to Warner Bros. in a unique deal that allowed the label creative control.
In 1997, Poneman fired four employees over letters they had written to Warner Bros. complaining of Sub Pop's business dealings, leaving Poneman's label with a roughed-up reputation. "I have tried to run Sub Pop honestly and to the best of my ability," Poneman said recently. "I will readily cop to having made misjudgments and plain, old garden-variety fuck-ups. That said, I've got to believe that a lot of what passes for 'criticism' is the by-product of misinformation, disinformation, gossip, and unfettered egoism on the part of certain former Sub Pop employees."
The label's image hasn't been helped by a more recent personnel shake-up, and an inaccurate story in Rolling Stone last November claiming that Sub Pop was about to be bought out by Warner Bros. However, Poneman will be the first to tell you that his label will continue to "punch the clock, crank the rock" like always. Along the way, Sub Pop has helped launch several other local indies, including Up, Die Young Stay Pretty, and Rx Remedy. In fact, most Seattle labels have some connection, major or minor, to Sub Pop (see chart, p. 28).
Despite the fact that his label's releases have veered from the heavy, mutilated guitars that marked its earlier acts, Poneman says that the Sub Pop "sound" will always be considered grunge by many listeners. Surprisingly, he doesn't mind the label. "To me, true grunge is nasty," he opines. "It's what the people always want. There are still folks who believe that if it's got the Sub Pop logo, it's grunge—wishful thinking."
There's hope yet. Upcoming records from Looper and a re-release of the Afghan Whigs' Uptown Avondale are in the works, as are records from Northwest acts Damien Jurado, Love as Laughter, Black Halos, and the Screaming Trees side project Gardener. For now, world domination remains within Sub Pop's grasp. Or, as Poneman points out when asked about his hopes for the future, "What do you mean 'plan to achieve'? We did it."
Beyond Sub Pop
On the Fringe or Up-and-Coming
It's Sub Pop's universe, we just live in it